Book Reviews

AudioBook Review: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn – The Most Important Book You’ve Probably Never Read

Truth be told, I haven’t “read” it yet either. I ended up purchasing the audiobook and listening to it over the course of a few months. It’s hard to digest rapidly, much like a number of other recent books about the history of this country I live in. If you’re one of those who thinks “history is being rewritten” when the fairy tales we were presented in our youth about American history are dispelled, then this is not for you. Indeed, many of the negative reviews I read about this book are by people like that who cling to the notion that America is all noble and good and a shining beacon for the rest of the world.

Truly, we are not. Just like all people are complex with good and bad things that make them human, so is this country.

First published in 1980 (and subsequently updated several times), A People’s History of the United States presents a different version of American History than what is commonly taught in schools. This is not “rewriting history,” it’s giving a more complete picture of what happened and its effects. Nothing happens in a vacuum, there are causes and effects of events that are far-reaching. Instead of focusing on the leaders and the wealthy of the country, and treating them as heroes, Zinn tries to tell American history through the eyes of those not given a viewpoint in most history textbooks.

Who is Howard Zinn that he can state all of this? He was chair of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, and a political science professor at Boston University.  He isn’t some celebrity talking head (a la Bill O’Reilly) who just decided one day to write. He grew up in New York City about the same time that my parents did, living through the Great Depression and seeing the effects on people first-hand when power is abused and people are treated as disposable. Early on, working in a shipyard during World War II, he saw the conditions the working man was subjected to and thought it was wrong.

Take Columbus, for example. There’s been a big pushback against the “holiday” named for him in recent years. Zinn shows why right off the bat. Columbus did not descend on an empty, barren, wasteland when he “discovered” the New World. There were people and functional societies there. Were they perfect? No, but they did not deserve the treatment they received from him in his zealous desire to bring back riches. Indeed, much of early American history has been presented to students over the years as (white) European settlers coming to a place that was barren and empty, when, in fact, there were thriving societies among the Native People. In many cases, Native People were as populous as some major European cities.

We don’t hear that point of view, because it’s not convenient for those who want to instill unquestioning patriotism in the masses. It’s hard to take pride in a country that was founded on the murder and near extermination of the Native People living here before them.

Zinn makes this point throughout the book. There were always people at the bottom of the chain throughout history who were ignored. We hear much about the slave trade and how slavery helped build this country. It was also built on the backs of poor whites brought over as indentured servants or slaves themselves. There has always been an underclass upon which others have stepped. Until Zinn, we didn’t hear much of their stories, but we always heard about those on top.

Indeed, Zinn makes it clear that the real battle has always been about class warfare. Even racism was something stirred up by those in power to keep poor whites from demanding more of society. There was a time in American history that enslaved blacks and poor and indentured whites worked together, yet schools gloss over that if they talk about it at all. It’s not a good thing to teach people that it’s okay to rise up and demand more when society isn’t handing out opportunities equally.

Reading (or listening to) A People’s History of the United States will give you a differing perspective on many things, including both the American Revolution and the Civil War. I’ve often thought that these were both instances where the wealthy managed to convince people who really had nothing to gain from these wars to fight for them. This is particularly the case in the Civil War, where the vast majority of southerners who fought did not own a slave, yet signed up to preserve an institution based on jingoism and false pretenses.

The edition I listened to took me right up to both of the Gulf Wars. I can’t say any of it really surprised me. I see it happening right now, where a group of people is being riled up and exploited by those who have nothing but disdain for them. It’s happened throughout our history, and Zinn does a great job presenting the facts surrounding how the people have been used throughout history to bolster what others needed to be done. The narration on my edition was performed by Howard Zinn’s son Jeff. I found it to be a good read, clear, and with good inflection where needed but not adding additional drama to a heavy subject.

I urge you to pick up this book and read it (or listen to it) with an open mind. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a deeper version of American history than what you were taught in school, or if you think there were things missing from what you learned, I highly recommend picking this up, either in audio or book format. It’s an important read to grasp a more complete picture of our nation. You can still be a proud, good American, just understand that we are not perfect. No human is and no country is.

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